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GM's retiree health benefits cut likely to affect about 150 in Martinsburg

July 18, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- General Motors Corp.'s move to eliminate health benefits for salaried retirees doesn't appear as "dire" as people have made it out to be, according to a leading member of about 150 salaried retirees from GM's plant in Berkeley County.

Yet, Lynn Riner says she still needs one major question answered about her former employer's cost-cutting announcement this week before knowing just how much of a financial hit she will take.

"Are they going to have pre-existing (medical) condition clauses?" in the Medicare plans that retirees will be able to sign up for beginning this fall, she asked.

"I've been treated for lung cancer for three years," said Riner, a former nurse who in 2006 retired after 28 years from GM's parts distribution operation just outside of Martinsburg off W.Va. 9.

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Regardless, Riner said the company's decision to add $300 per month to pension checks for salaried retirees was welcome news.

Riner estimated the company's slashing of benefits will affect about 150 retirees in the Martinsburg area.

Most already are 65 or older, or soon will be, Riner said.

She and Harry Mundy, another salaried retiree, have organized an annual Christmas luncheon and monthly breakfast get-togethers, but the group hasn't formally organized, Riner said.

GM officials said Tuesday that a plan to save $15 billion through 2009 would entail slashing jobs, reduced production, suspension of its dividend and sale of assets, according to The Associated Press.

GM said if its latest predictions hold true, it will have enough cash to sustain itself until 2010. But with no guarantee that the economic slump and U.S. sales downturn have hit bottom, the latest addition to a long string of restructuring efforts may not be enough to keep GM from going the way of Studebaker.

Local 1590 United Auto Workers leader Ken Collinson said Thursday there are about 1,000 retirees who are part of the union's retiree organization in the Martinsburg area.

The company's financial struggles come less than a year after the UAW launched a nationwide strike after workers failed to reach agreement with management on a new contract that involved future health care costs for retirees, wages and job security, among other issues.

A deal ended the two-day strike in September 2007. At that time, the GM plant near Martinsburg employed about 200 people, officials had said.

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